In Berkeley: Django Reinhardt unchained and Charles Amirkhanian’s music inspired by nature

Freight & Salvage celebrates Django Reinhardt’s 110th birthday with a three-day festival featuring leading Gypsy jazz ensembles. Photo: William P. Gottlieb

Paul Mehling can’t take full credit for the profusion of bands dedicated to the joyous Gypsy jazz sound created in Depression-era Paris by guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grappelli. But as the lead guitarist and founder of the Hot Club of San Francisco, the longest running and most visible Hot Club ensemble in the United States, he can look at Freight & Salvage’s three-day Django Reinhardt birthday celebration with a good deal of pride.

Now in its fourth decade, the HCSF or a Mehling-centric spinoff performs each night of the talent-packed festival, which highlights the ongoing strength of the Gypsy jazz movement both on the West Coast and in France, where it all got started. As a veteran player who took up a distinctive sounding Maccaferri guitar as an evangelical Djangophile, “it was just a consciousness raising thing,” he says. “I wanted to turn people onto Django,” who died in 1953 at the age of 43.

The celebration opens Friday with a triple bill featuring a reunion of an earlier HCSF incarnation dating back to the release of the popular 1997 album Swing This includingviolinist Jeremy Cohen (and some surprise guests). The all-women quartet Christine Tassan et Les Imposteures shares the bill with the headliner Biréli Lagrène, the preeminent Manouche guitarist carrying the Gypsy jazz flame.

The Biréli Lagrène Trio also headlines Saturday on a triple bill with the current HCSF lineup and 15-year-old Django-style guitarist Henry Acker, a Boston-based prodigy who performs with his father and uncle, jazz guitarist Victor Acker and bassist Dana Acker, respectively. Sunday’s program covers the West Coast from the Los Angeles-based Gonzalo Bergara Quartet to Seattle’s Pearl Django, the band that has turned the Pacific Northwest into Hot Club hotbed. Rounding out the show is a quintet that Mehling co-leads with Southland reed expert Nate Ketner.


In many ways sharing the stage with Biréli Lagrène completes a mission that launched Mehling on his Gypsy jazz quest. The 1981 release of Lagrène’s first album, Routes to Django: Live at the Krokodil, hit him like an earthquake. A prodigy from a family of brilliant players, Lagrène recorded the album at 13, and in an era long before ubiquitous videos and the internet made gathering information as easy as logging on, Mehling decided to head to France to learn from the source.

“With the internet everyone’s an expert, but back then there was all kinds of folklore about Django. You had to play with two fingers,” Mehling says, referring to the fire that maimed Reinhardt’s left hand. “You had to be a Gypsy. You had to be in the inner circle to know the magic. So I went to Europe looking for Biréli and tried to transcribe everything from the guys I played with on the street.”

He never did track Lagrène down, and by the time the young star started performing in the United States he was exploring other guitar styles, mastering the sinewy hard bop sound of George Benson and the blazing fusion of Larry Coryell and John McLaughlin. Eventually Lagrène returned to his Gypsy jazz roots, reclaiming his status as Django’s most accomplished heir.

Other Minds in Berkeley

Other Minds celebrates founder and composer Charles Amirkhanian’s 75th birthday and the release of his new album Loudspeakers Sunday afternoon at the Brower Center. Photo: Carol Law

A former San Francisco casket factory long served as headquarters for the visionary new music champions of Other Minds, until gentrification put the final nails into the organization’s Mission District digs. Searching for an affordable space in an era of skyrocketing rents, the shoestring presenter found an ideal home in Berkeley’s ecology-minded David Brower Center by emphasizing a long track record of supporting composers creating music inspired by or directly derived from nature.

On Sunday afternoon, OM presents the 13th installment of its Nature of Music series in the Brower Center’s Goldman Auditorium with a program featuring two pieces by Charles Amirkhanian, OM’s co-founder and artistic and executive director. While the organization maintains an office in San Francisco’s Center for New Music, OM applied for a spot in the Brower Center with a convincing case that “we actively support composers who put environmental sounds in their music,” Amirkhanian said.

Take his own work for example. Sunday’s event is both a fundraiser for OM, a celebration of Amirkhanian’s 75th birthday and an album release party for Loudspeakers (New World Records), a two-CD set collecting four extended works that he created for West German radio. The pieces are very different than the sound poetry recordings for which he’s best known. “They represent a completely different side of what I do,” he said. “As opposed to the short rhythmic pieces, there’s a greater range of emotional expression. I worked with Henry Kaiser, who owns a Synclavier, and sampled sound from nature and San Francisco and put into the keyboard. We recorded hours of improvisation and I had them layered in a studio so the pieces unfold like a story.”